Long before our kids dare to start daydreaming of carefree days at the pool, we parents start planning how to keep them busy during the summer. The average parent spends anywhere from $600-$1,000 or more per child for summer activities and camps. It’s more than we spend at the holidays, yet we often forget to budget for these expenses. A little planning while there’s still snow on the ground can help everyone relax about money once the weather turns warmer.
Making a budget for summer expenses allows parents to prioritize and make room for the things that are important. With so many choices available, it can be tempting to try everything. Rachel Cruze, author of #1 New York Times bestselling book Smart Money Smart Kids (co-authored with her father, Dave Ramsey), advises parents to be realistic about what is affordable for their family.
“It’s ok to say no. You have to do what’s smart for your family,” Cruze says. When drawing up the budget, remember there’s usually many hidden expenses (ballet shoes or soccer uniforms, for example) not included in activity fees. Cruze recommends adding a line item in the budget that will catch these miscellaneous items.
1. Involve Kids
Talk about summer activities as a non-mandatory expense for the family and involve kids by suggesting they ask for money for camps as gifts or complete extra chores to earn money. Cruze tells parents to have kids save a percentage of the cost of activities so they “have a little skin in the game.” Girl Scouts of the USA, as one example, offers an opportunity for girls to contribute to camp costs through cookie sales. Depending on the number of cookie packages sold, girls have the option of earning credits, starting in $15 increments, which are automatically applied to Girl Scout camps for which they”ve registered.
2. Check Out Free or Low-Cost Options
It may sound too good to be true, but free camps and activities do exist. Schools, churches and non-profits receive grant money. The YMCA and other nonprofits offer quality camps at considerably lower prices. Some high school athletes offer low-cost sports camps for elementary students as fundraisers for their own programs. Call local high schools to see if teams near you are offering this.
3. Consider Partial-Week Camps
Two- and three-day camps or half-day options can be a significant cost savings over week-long camps. Kids will often get the same benefits from a few days as they would from a whole week. “The measurable gains children make at camp in terms of social and personal development are seen at day and residential camps, in week-long sessions, as well as longer term experiences,” says Tom Holland, CEO of the American Camp Association.
4. Search for Discounts
Many camps offer discounts, yet they don’t always advertise them. Schedule all of your kids at the same camp and you’re likely to receive a sibling discount. As a bonus, they will all be on the same schedule. Does your child want to bring a friend? Ask for a referral discount. Signing up for summer camps in the winter or spring may allow you to take advantage of early-bird discounts offered by the camp (but be sure to check the refund policy in case you end up with any last-minute changes of plans). Don’t be afraid to ask. “Inquire directly with the camp leadership about pricing, financial aid and discounts that may be available to (your) family,” says Holland.
Parents who work at certain camps are offered discounts, or, you may be able to negotiate a discount. As soon as kids are old enough, which at some camps is as young as age 12, they can volunteer for the full or partial cost of the camp.
6. Check the American Camp Association
The American Camp Association recently introduced a new website with a searchable database that allows parents to choose from tens of thousands of camps from aeronautics to windsurfing. Their tool has a feature for searching by price. “There are tremendous resources and videos available for families, including expert advice from camp professionals on camp selection, readiness, child and youth development and numerous other issues of importance for families, such as packing lists and the importance of selecting an accredited camp,” says Holland.
7. Be Creative
Plan other ways to fill their time. Consider talking with other parents about having a camp co-op. If five families participate, their children can go to “camp” each day of the week at one family’s house. The host family plans an activity (craft from pinterest.com, basketball, etc.).
Cruze recommends thinking outside the box. “Do something meaningful. That’s what they will remember,” she says. In her book, Cruze tells the story of the summer when her father helped her and her sister set up a snack business at his office. They were responsible for stocking and selling snacks. It was a valuable learning experience, as well as a way to earn extra summer cash.
8. Check Out Your Tax Benefits
If you and your spouse both work, day camps may qualify for the Dependant Care Spending Account. The account allows parents to set aside a portion of their paycheck tax-free to pay for childcare and activities. Visit cpa125.com/FSA-Dependent%20 Care.htm for details. Tax credits for families with two or more dependents are available but they are dependant on a family’s gross income. To see if you qualify, go to fsafeds.com/GEM.
Make Budgeting a Family Affair
Steve and Andrea Bourne are the parents of three busy teenagers and the developers of the Famously Simple Budget App and Allowance App. Steve describes the family’s attitude toward finance as a ‘team sport.” Here are a few of their best tips for managing a family budget.
- Communicate. Make specific goals and talk every day about the budget. Focus on the behaviors that either make or break the budget, not the numbers themselves. The Bournes use apps like Cozi or Square Hub to stay organized and communicate among the family. To keep the kids in the loop, they also go low-tech, using dry-erase boards in high traffic areas to communicate chores and progress towards family goals like saving for summer vacation.
- Find a system that works for you. Beyond their own budget apps, they list Mint, You Need a Budget (YNAB), Quicken and ProOnGo as good apps for getting spending under control. Steve cautions, “Budgeting apps often only work for a certain type of personality. We’ve seen this in how our users interact with our apps and we”re always adding features to make it easier for those less prone to balancing check books. In the end, we say if you’re not that type, don’t beat yourself up about it. Find something that works for you.”
- Set a target spending amount for discretionary items. This means everything above and beyond mandatory bills like the mortgage. The Bournes put all groceries, gas, entertainment, etc. on one (rewards-earning) credit card so they can easily keep tabs on their day-to-day spending. They make sure to pay off that credit card in full every month.
- Eat out less. Even with a strong focus on locally grown and fresh foods, the Bourne family has slashed their food spending in half by buying in bulk, eating out less and taking advantage of planning tips and advice from online food blogs. Check out onceamonthmeals.com, 100daysofrealfood.com and, thriftyfrugalmom.com.